a conversation with Elisabeth Eaves      


Bold Type: Why did you decide to write this book?

Elisabeth Eaves: Though I'd quit stripping, I couldn't seem to get it out of my system. I had stopped talking to people about my work because I found that I couldn't really explain it, and when I did talk about it I was hit with a lot of negative and false stereotypes. At that time I couldn't have told you why I stripped, or whether I thought it was a good thing or a bad thing. So it was an obsession about which I had no answers.

There were people in my life, like an ex-boyfriend, who had been to prostitutes. I also knew a lot of men who visited strip clubs. I found that this really bothered me. I knew it was hypocritical that I reacted that way, and so I realized that I had a lot to figure out.

BT: What are some of the negative stereotypes that you encountered?

EE: The obvious ones, that strippers are dumb, that nobody does this by choice. It's a common assumption that most strippers were sexually abused when they were younger. The reality is that the percentage of strippers who were abused is probably no greater than that of the general population—and no one knows for sure what that number is. Stripping is often misconstrued as a downtrodden occupation, one that a woman would only choose if she were on her last legs.

BT: Where do these myths come from?

EE: The only place that many people see strippers is in movies and television shows—or at once-yearly bachelor parties. Most entertainment portrayals of strippers feed the false ideas that these women are completely down-and-out. Or the stripper is gratuitous, just eye candy in a scene.

BT: The women you describe in your book are quite multi-faceted, have different interests and intellectual pursuits, and have gotten into stripping for a variety of reasons. Are there commonalities among the women you met while stripping?

EE: Everyone who does it is, obviously, a bit of an exhibitionist. But there are very few common character traits. The strippers I met are as different as people in any other profession. Some are ambitious, some are not; they have widely varying interests.

BT: By the end of the book you still haven't told your parents about your stripping. When did you finally confess?

EE: When I actually started working on the book and had a contract, I went back to Seattle—that was two years ago. At that point I told them that, in fact, I wasn't just writing about strippers; I had worked as one myself. I'm a bit of a coward, because I probably wouldn't have told them if I hadn't had to. I realized that since I was coming out of the closet, they'd better be the first people to know.

BT: How did that go?

EE: Initially they were upset, but since then they've been supportive; we have a fairly good relationship. They've said some very intelligent things that suggest to me that they understand what I'm really trying to do, and that I'm interested in other people's lives and motivations.

BT: Have they read the book?

EE: They're reading it right now. When the hardcover finally came out I had a copy sent to them. I spoke to my dad recently and he told me he was about four chapters into it. I thought, "Great—gotta go!"

BT: At one point in Bare you state that you are much more comfortable asking people questions than answering them, that you like to leak your personal information one drop at a time. How did you make the transition to completing this book, which is so personal?

EE: I'm still nervous about having done so, but I think that putting words on the page suits me well, that writing is my medium. You sit in a room by yourself and you edit yourself and you get down exactly what you want to say before you put it out to the world. I'm quite comfortable and very absorbed when I'm writing; I'm not as comfortable talking. I'm going on live television for the first time tomorrow and this is very nerve-racking; I have no idea what it will be like.

I'm not nervous about people I don't know reading my book; it's the idea of friends and ex-boyfriends doing so that gives me a knot in my stomach.

BT: Has writing this book, and all the publicity that will ensue, closed this chapter in your life?

EE: I think so. I'm working on a novel right now and it has nothing to do with this subject at all; there will probably be sex in the book, but it's not a central part of the theme. Stripping was the subject I had to get off my chest, and I feel that I've done it. I don't see myself becoming a sex expert or having this be my theme or writing more books about it. I see myself moving onto other subjects.

BT: Do you prefer the term "stripping" or "dancing"?

EE: I'm fine with "stripping". "Dancing" is euphemistic; I think the women who prefer that term are concerned about gaining other people's respect, or are unhappy with their work. I was a journalist—I prefer the most specific term in most cases.

BT: Let's talk about the men you met while you were stripping. You say at one point of the men who patronize strip clubs that, "Somewhere in the circle of sex, love, and society, something had broken down and tangled." Can you elaborate on that?

EE: I don't have a lot of respect for these men. I don't think they're evil people, but I think that they're weak. I see visiting strip clubs as a form of cheating; I'm bothered by the idea that women are for sale, and I see this in many aspects of our society. Not just stripping, but in the entertainment, modeling, and fashion industries. I see it in attitudes of my peers, who say things like, "He should buy me dinner." It all comes down to this idea that women are for sale and can be bought, that their beauty, charm, and character are about money; I think the customers very much subscribe to this idea. The attitude is "I want something, and rather than investing the time and effort it would take to get it, I'll just pay for it." I have a problem with that.

For the real regulars, strip clubs seem like an addiction; the amount of money they spend is sad. They're constantly buying an illusion, because that's all you get in a strip club. On some level they know that but on another they want it, regardless. There are clubs where men can go get a hand job, so they're getting a sexual service. But they're also paying—and paying and paying and paying—for the girls to dance and talk to them. It seems a sad substitute to forming an actual connection with someone, a friend or a wife.

BT: Do you think that most of these men have friends and wives?

EE: It's hard to say. When I worked at the Lusty Lady I saw tons of customers wearing wedding bands. But there were some customers who I would see so often that I couldn't imagine their having much of a life outside the club. That's one of the interesting aspects of this job, meeting all of these strangers and speculating on what their lives are about.

BT: Did stripping change the way you view the men in your life?

EE: For a while it made me more cynical. It reinforced this idea that I had since I was a young woman that I could seduce whomever I wanted to and that people would always react to me sexually. I don't necessarily feel this way anymore, but working at a stripper completely reinforces that notion. You start to think that every man is a slave to his hormones.

BT: Why did you initially decide to become a stripper?

EE: The simplest reason was avid curiosity, and that came from the fact that when I was growing up I chafed against sexual rules and stereotypes. It bothered me that I was told "Don't wear that it's too tight; don't talk about sex or you'll be called a 'slut'; don't have sex." When I first became aware that there were such a thing as strippers, it occurred to me that they didn't have the same rules; they can be ostentatious and brazen and sexual, and this looked fun and exciting to me. Of course I heard negative things about strippers as well, so I was curious to know which side of the story was true.

BT: Did you worry that working as a stripper would reinforce the notion that women are for sale?

EE: I didn't so much at the time, but I've since concluded that stripping is not something I will do again. When I first started I was definitely not questioning the social ramifications of what I was doing. That's one of the things I figured out when I went back to write this book. Moral consistency dictates that I should not do this—strip—anymore.

BT: Do you miss it?

EE: Occasionally. There are moments while you're stripping that are truly fun. You're the center of attention and you're dancing—I like to dance anyway—you're getting all this sexual attention and this makes you feel attractive. At the Lusty Lady there's a strong camaraderie among the women. I can look back on those things fondly, but I don't miss it to the point that I want to do it again.

BT: Do you think of strippers as sex-workers? It's hard for me to consider strippers and prostitutes as being under the same umbrella of the sex industry, because the services they provide are so different.

EE: I like the term "sex-work." You can refer to the building industry, and within that you have architects and electricians and carpenters—they don't do the same thing, but they are all part of one industry. Strippers, hookers, and phone-sex operators can all be labeled "sex-workers"; it's a handy term.

I know plenty of strippers who would never consider prostitution, and some who have. Everyone's got their own boundaries. The Lusty Lady is very well-regulated, so there it would be impossible to blur the lines too much—but the lines can certainly get very blurry elsewhere in the industry. If every time you go to work someone offers you more money to do more, you're faced with something that people in other walks of life don't face. Boundaries erode, and the women recognize this. There's a woman in the book named Lara who is very unhappy as a stripper; she thinks it's ruined her life, and yet she continues to do it. I think one of the reasons she is so unhappy is because she continually disregards the boundaries she's set.

BT: You seemed to maintain your boundaries quite well; was this difficult?

EE: It never was at the Lusty Lady because there's a wall of glass between you and the customer. In the Private Pleasures booth you're one on one with a customer, and you communicate through the glass with microphones. The booth creates an interesting and somewhat difficult environment, because you never know what the customer will ask you to do; it could be something very weird. So you have to go in there knowing what you will and won't do for money. I never used sex toys in there, though most of the performers did. I also hated lap dancing, which went on in some of the other clubs where I worked. I was fortunate that my rent did not depend on my stripping. A lot of women are not as lucky; if stripping is your only income, the money's going to make the choices for you.

BT: There's a high percentage of lesbians and bi-sexuals among the strippers. You do a good job describing why the business would appeal to lesbians, but does this ever happen in reverse? Are there women who become so jaded by men while stripping that they experiment with their sexuality?

EE: I think it happens a bit. It's an environment that's very conducive to dating women; you're surrounded by naked women at work. I've met lesbians who believe that straight strippers can get so burnt out and negative toward men that they decide to date women; working as a stripper does effect your heterosexual relationships. If you're a lesbian, men just aren't as relevant to your personal life; you're not going to take your anger toward men home. Also, strippers tend to be experimental and somewhat unorthodox people—because it is that kind of business. As a result, they may be more open to bisexuality than other people. It's hard to say which comes first.

BT: What function do you think stripping serves society?

EE: That's an interesting question. It's an outlet of sorts. I think that if more people had better sexual relationships there would be less sex work. Most of Europe tends to be more sexually liberated than the United States is, and I've heard dancers say that there's no money in stripping in Europe. In this country, I think it comes down to the classic virgin/whore mentality; stripping reinforces this idea some men hold that a woman can't be both a saintly girlfriend or wife and a sexual fantasy. They think they have to get the two things in two different places. Women have that idea too—women are raised on ideas of romance and being good girls, and so they have an idea that they shouldn't be so sexually free and open. Both sexes reinforce this idea.

BT: Do you wish that our society was such that the need for strip clubs was alleviated?

EE: In an ideal world yes, but getting to this point is a big task and is not something that can be legislated. In the same sense I don't think that prostitution is good, but making it illegal just makes it more profitable for the people involved. It's also more dangerous to society because it's difficult to monitor health in the industry. If it were legal, I don't think there would be a significantly higher percentage of prostitutes. I doubt that there are more Dutch prostitutes per capita than there are in the United States, yet we all know that prostitution is legal in Amsterdam. I don't think that legislation is the answer, but other than talking openly and sharing information, I don't know what is.

BT: There's a customer in the book who comes to the club to fulfill pedophile fantasies. One of the strippers—Kim—says that she would like to believe that the club gives this customer a safe outlet for his fantasies, but she's not convinced that it does. What do you think about this?

EE: I don't know. This is something that we talked about fairly often in the dressing room, but we didn't have the answer. Are we keeping someone off the street who would be doing dangerous things? I'd like to think so, but I just don't know.

BT: Do you ever regret having stripped?

EE: Not at all. I think it was fascinating and that I learned a lot about myself. It was something I really wanted to do at the time and that no one could have talked me out of, so I don't see the point in regretting it.

BT: If you were to advise women on whether or not to strip, which women would be good candidates for the industry and which would not?

EE: I certainly wouldn't make an across-the-board recommendation because there are risks. Women can get trapped in the job, it can effect their relationships, and it can have negative societal repercussions. If I were recommending it to anyone, it would be to women who have a lot of confidence and drive in other areas of their lives, because it is not a good place to be stuck. On a practical level there's the resume-gap problem. If you've supported yourself stripping for eight years, what do you do next? It's a young woman's job, based on how your body looks at a certain age. If you really want to strip and you have something else going on, another career or an academic track, it's viable.

Having supportive people in one's life also makes it easier. The boyfriend I had when I started stripping tolerated it, but he didn't really like it. Stripping exacerbated pre-existing problems in our relationship. If you're in a relationship that you really want to keep, I would think twice before getting into it—and listen to his apprehensions.

BT: What would you have done with this experience if you hadn't written the book?

EE: I would have ended up writing about it in some way. Before I got the book contract I was toying with some fictionalized versions of the Lusty Lady. It would have come out somehow—not necessarily in a book like Bare, but somehow.

BT: You mentioned a novel you're working on now; is this pure fiction?

EE: It's a novel whose two dominant themes are national identity and globalization. It's a work of fiction, though some of my experiences in New York and London, post-stripping, have influenced the story. I don't yet have a sound-byte to describe it.

--Interview conducted by Laura Buchwald

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    Photo credit: Laura Buchwald